Legal aid cuts mean growing numbers of people struggle alone, managing multiple problems such as mental ill health, homelessness, domestic abuse, debt, discrimination, problems with benefits or immigration often simultaneously, navigating a complex justice system they do not understand, feeling ignored and abandoned.
This small-scale study of legal support by Revolving Doors and funded by Trust for London gathered the perspectives of 30 London Forum Members with lived experience of the revolving door of personal crisis and crime. Revolving Doors asked them about their experiences of seeking assistance in London for cases that should be eligible for legal aid under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) regime.
- Among 30 participants, a total of 173 civil legal problems were experienced in the last five years.
- The most frequently experienced problems were issues relating to family disputes, especially the care of children and housing problems.
- Of these 173 problems, legal support were sought for 43 issues. In other words, 43 people in the revolving door did not seek legal support for at least three quarters of civil law cases. The rate of accessing legal aid is even much lower.
Evidence from one national study suggests there are at least 7,000 individuals experiencing a combination of substance misuse, offending, and homelessness across London each year. If this sheer volume of legal problems experienced by forum members are representative of Londoners who are caught in the ‘revolving door’, then it can be estimated that since the introduction of LASPO:
- 50,000 civil legal problems experienced by this small population, and 37,500 legal problems in areas of housing, family law, social care, welfare benefits, and immigration had to be dealt without any legal support.
Whilst the vast majority of people who were arrested, charged or questioned by the police sought and received legal support, there were huge disparities in other areas of law:
- 4 in 5 experiencing domestic violence did not seek legal support, as they found it difficult to provide evidence to demonstrate their victim status.
- 3 in 5 who wanted to appeal a benefits decision did not do so, because they felt there was no help available to them.
- Over half did not seek legal support for housing problems, including cases of serious disrepair and unlawful eviction.
The accounts of forum members highlight more needs to be done to build the trust between people in the revolving door and legal aid lawyers and give them hope that the justice system should be and is just. This briefing also poses further questions on how to improve access to justice for people in the revolving door:
- How do we help people to see their problems as legitimate legal concerns and view themselves as equal citizens with rights?
- How do we make legal advice more visible to people in the revolving door, especially considering the level of social and digital exclusion they face?
- If there are changes to the law, as with the reintroduction of some elements of prison law into the fold of legal aid, how do we ensure that those affected are aware of their entitlements?
- Given the time constraints on legal aid lawyers and barristers, how can we accommodate relationship and trust building in legal processes?
- How can legal aid lawyers and barristers communicate better with their clients to avoid misunderstanding of their case or entitlements – for example, better advice on plea deals or ‘no comment’ interviews?
Next steps will involve inviting legal aid lawyers to the National Policy Forum to discuss and open dialogue between legal professionals and people with lived experience. Revolving Doors hope this will help to break down misconceptions, build trust and generate possible solutions to problems outlined.